When the chips were down, judge did the right thing

By Linda Emley

After the Masonic story a few weeks ago, I’ve been looking for the answer to who was the mystery man on the hill, the one that Rev. Aker talked about, as ‘The only man who is not criticized by some individual in Richmond sleeps over yonder on the hill,’ he said, pointing in the direction of the cemetery.”
Several people have suggested who this man might be. Some have mentioned David Whitmer, who was an outstanding man of Richmond. Another suggestion was Jesus, since Rev. Aker’s sermon mentioned, “every Mason should become well acquainted with the Grand Master on high,” which is referring to God. I’m still looking for more details about this story but I did find a few clues in the following story, thanks to Jewell Mayes.
In 1929, Jewell Mayes started a weekly column in the Richmond Missourian that was called Ray County Chapters. I’ve used his tales of adventure for some of my stories and just when I think I’ve read them all, I find another one that I love even more. The following story is one of my new favorites.
“A former Rayite, Professor A.C. Magill, chairman of the department of science at the Missouri State Teacher’s College in Cape Girardeau, Mo. has remarked to me that his father, Judge Lorenzo S. Magill, residing north of Richmond on highway No. 13, is full of true stories of the homeland pioneers. Professor Magill tells this historic narrative, which was first related to him by his cousin, the late Thomas Magill of Richmond township, as follows: ‘In the days when giants, such as Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan, Captain James L. Farris and Col. (Kit) T. Garner walked the earth and practiced law in Richmond, Judge Mordecai Oliver was judge of the circuit court in Richmond. (Judge Oliver became Missouri’s Civil War Secretary of State on July 30, 1861). It had been a trying day in court. After supper, Colonel Doniphan, Captain Farris and Colonel Garner met in Judge Oliver’s room, at the old Wasson House, to wait for the jury to make up its mind.
“To pass away the time, they engaged in a friendly game of poker. Poker playing was against the law in Missouri. When the game had reached the point where it was both interesting and exciting to such masters as those gathered around the table, the Sheriff walked into the room to report that the jury was ready. The sheriff, being a wise and judicious man, tried to act as if he did not see what was going on, but Judge Oliver said to him, ‘Mr. Sheriff, you have caught four men playing poker, in this room. This is a violation of the law. Arrest everybody present.’ All four were arrested and on each giving his personal pledge to appear in court next morning for trial, they were released.
“Next morning, when court met, Judge Oliver announced that last night Alexander W. Doniphan, Jim Farris, Kit Garner and Mordecai Oliver had been arrested at the Wasson House for playing poker and that the first business would be to try them, and that he would dispense with the services of the Prosecuting Attorney and try the cases himself.
“He said he would try Mordecai Oliver (himself) first. He then proceeded to carry on the following conversation with himself: ‘Mordecai Oliver are you present in court? Yes, your Honor. Mordecai, were you playing poker in the Wasson House last night? Yes, your honor. Mordecai, you are Judge of the Circuit Court in this district. You should set a better example for other citizens in the observance of the law. I fine you twenty five dollars. The sheriff will collect the fine at once.’
With that, Judge Mordecai Oliver paid the sheriff the 25 dollars. He then called upon Col. Doniphan, Capt. Farris and Col. Garner. Needless to say, they all pleaded guilty. Judge Oliver said to them: “Gentlemen, you are all lawyers and so knew that you were violating the law. However you are all guileless and innocent, and were probably led into this by your evil companion. I will let you off easier than I did him. I fine you 10 dollars each. The sheriff will collect the fines.” They paid.
Judge Mordecai Oliver is now one of my favorite Richmondites and I wanted to put him on the short list of possible candidates for that special man “sleeping over yonder on the hill.”, but he moved on and left Richmond so he isn’t the man on the hill.
The New York Times on Aug. 2 1861, mentioned Mordecai Oliver. “The New State Government of Missouri. The Missouri State Convention has passed an ordinance declaring the offices of Governor, Lieutenant-Governor and Secretary of State, and members of the General Assembly, vacant. It has also proceeded to fill the first three by the provisional appointment of Hamilton R. Gamble to be Governor, Willard P. Hall to be Lieutenant-Governor, and Mordecai Oliver to be Secretary of State.
The personnel of this Provisional State Government is all that could be desired by the Union men of Missouri, even those that are most persistent opposers of Mr. Lincoln’s Administration. Hamilton R. Gamble, the new Governor, is one of the best known and most eminent citizens of Missouri. He is a resident of St. Louis, a lawyer by profession and practice.
Mordecai Oliver, the Secretary of State, was a resident formerly of Clay County, lying on the north side of the Missouri River, near the Kansas border. Liberty, the County seat of Clay County, will be remembered for the violations of the United States Arsenal there, in the Kansas troubles, and more recently by Secession plunderers. Mr. Oliver represented his District in Congress, as a Whig, about 8 years ago; but when the American Party came up, Mr. Oliver acted with the Democracy of Missouri, and, so far as we know, still counts himself one of them. But he has proved himself an unswerving Union man.”
I’m sorry the New York Times did not mention Ray County, be we know he was here. After Mordecai Oliver’s political career was over, he moved to St. Louis and served as a criminal court judge from 1889 to 1893. He died on April 25, 1898 and is buried in Springfield.
And the search for the perfect Richmondite continues on.

You can share your stories and ideas with Linda at or see her in person at Ray County Museum.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login